In this dirty old part of the city
Where the sun refuse to shine
People tell me there ain’t no use in trying
Now my girl you’re so young and pretty
And one thing I know is true
You’ll be dead before your time is due
We gotta get out of this place
If its the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
‘Cause girl, there’s a better life
For me and you
- Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’
I remember the buzz that surrounded Port, the play by Simon Stephens, when it was premièred at the Royal Exchange Manchester in 2002. The play was set in Stockport, Stephens’ hometown, and had been written during a year he spent as resident dramatist at the Exchange in 1999. I didn’t see it then, but, in London last week, I had the curious experience of having travelled 200 miles to watch a play set in the town nearest to the place where I grew up.
Port spans 13 years in the life of the bright and vivacious Racheal, from the age of 11 when she and her six-year-old brother Billy are abandoned by their mother. The play begins (and ends) in a car parked outside a block of flats in Stockport. In the first scene, set in 1988, Racheal is a restless, inquisitive 11-year-old, sitting with her mum and brother after they have all been locked out by a dad who has gone a bit ‘mental’ (one of the joys of the play is Stephen’s ear for the vernacular, for the street argot of a time when everything weird was ‘mental’).
Stephens’ drama follows Racheal (that’s how her name is spelled in the script by the way) as she comes to terms with the emotional shock of her mother’s disappearance, her father’s isolation and alcoholism, and the death of her grandfather. She is the spirited focus of the play, resilient and fiercely articulate, fighting to overcome the hand that she has been dealt in life. We see her struggle to define herself – in love and in marriage, through work and getting her own place. She is protective of her younger brother (prone to getting repeatedly run over, and, later, to thieving and subsequent spells of incarceration), but makes mistakes in her own erratic life. One of the most powerful scenes occurs in a hotel room in Edale on the eve of the millenium, with Racheal left cowering and terrified after a brutal onslaught by the abusive man she has unwisely and unexpectedly married.
Racheal is central to the play, ‘open-eyed, tough, brilliantly optimistic’ in Stephens’ words, but complicated, too, with unlovely aspects born out of neglect and abuse. Above all, though, it is Racheal’s tenacity and resilience (reminiscent, as Michael Billington observed in his review for The Guardian, of Shelagh Delaney’s Jo in A Taste of Honey) that means that you leave the theatre, not downhearted, but with your spirits lifted.
All of the performances in this production at the National were convincing: Mike Noble as Racheal’s brother Billy, Jack Deam as her fearsome husband, and Calum Callaghan as boyfriend Danny are all worthy of mention. But it was Kate O’Flynn, mesmerising in the central role of Racheal, who held the whole thing together. She makes the transition from child to young woman in the early scenes without leaving the stage, discarding one layer of clothing after another like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. She made the difficult transition from an mercurial 11-year-old to a 24-year-old – hurt, divorced, but still standing – look entirely convincing. O’Flynn’s performance made Racheal likeable and human, someone whose feelings you could understand and empathise with, not out of pity, but because of the sheer strength of her character.
Simon Stephens has written about the origins of Port:
I was given a commission by Manchester’s Royal Exchange. It made sense to write about where I was born. I returned to the town for weeks at a time, my visits coinciding with the last few months of my dad’s life. The combination of seeing old friends, going to places I’d not been to for years, and watching my dad fight cancer are manifest in the play, in ways I’ve only now come to realise. The places where I’d grown up became my dramatic landscape: the Mersey Way shopping centre and Stockport bus station, drab municipal shells sitting in the shadow of the mighty viaduct. And the kids I’d been to school with and worked with in shit weekend jobs gave me its characters. They were dryly funny, smart and skint. The music we had all listened to came to inform the play’s structure.
Although I began this review by quoting what seem like pertinent lines from the Animals 1965 hit ‘We Gotta Get out of This Place’, the National Theatre production is drenched in the music made in Manchester in the late 1980s. Stephens explains:
Port is about a place and a time – south Manchester in the late 1980s – that was charged with music. I wanted to dramatise that charge. I wanted the play to have the same effect on an audience that the Fall, New Order, the Smiths, the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses had on me. I tried to build scenes with the same pace and structure as their songs. I tried to evoke the imagery of their lyrics in my dialogue. [...]
So I went back home and interviewed five women who had lived in Stockport all their lives – relatives, old friends, friends of my mum. The oldest was my 85 year-old nana; the youngest my teenage cousin. They told me about their jobs and marriages, their aspirations and frustrations. Many of these stories – from the discovery of a dead sparrow to a disastrous New Year’s Eve in a hotel – made it into the fabric of the play.
The story began to develop: a series of scenes focused on one character, Racheal Keats. We watch her grow up. We watch her deal with a family falling apart and a complicated marriage, with a broken-hearted brother who has criminal proclivities, and with the love of her life. She’s open-eyed, tough, brilliantly optimistic.
Stephens portrays Racheal’s struggle as a battle between love and hatred for the town where she has grown. She longs for the countryside beyond the town, for different places, better places. She leaves but returns, a somewhat philosophical 24-year-old who acknowledges her mistakes and the continuing sense of loss she has felt since her mother’s disappearance (ironically, the one character who does escape the place).
In the NT’s programme there’s an extract from Paul Morley’s forthcoming book The North (and almost everything in it). He grew up in Stockport, too. He writes of a town where ‘wit and bloody-minded acceptance cauterise hopelessness’, and of the ‘frustration, …. the broken hearts, resolution and ferocious, native candour’ running through Port.Morley continues:
The town carries on, Stoicport, and nothing much changes, except the people, still being born there, spending their time there, making do, making it up as they go along, maybe plotting escape routes. Some are in the posh parts, some are stuck where Stockport itself stays stuck near enough to the happening, still modernising big city, with its own battles a little adrift, desperately looking for tomorrow in a place that often settles for what it’s got, where it is and the miserable weather like there’s no tomorrow. I’d left by 1978, because all major roads and railways lines lead out, towards possible adventure, and Manchester Airport begins where Stockport ends. I turned my back on the place, but took with me the Stockport fighter, the Stockport lip and defiant, non-fey accent, as personified by anti-establishment 1930s tennis champion Fred Perry, born in the centre of the Stockport valley a few hundred yards from where the Mersey begins. I left Stockport, but eventually got to realise, you never completely leave.
In an interview with the Metro, Stephens said, ‘Port is a play that I hope inspires. But theatre is a fundamentally optimistic enterprise and my plays are rooted in a faith in people. That’s what makes me want to write.’ The Metro piece continued:
The only personal history Stephens admits to pilfering is his burning teenage desire, like Racheal, to get out of Stockport, where he grew up. ‘Now I go back and can see the beauty of the place,’ he says. ‘I see what I’ve inherited from it: an intolerance of pretension and an insistence that I do my bloody job, that I work hard. But when I was 14, Stockport took on the mantle of the place to flee.’
If the acting shone, there were difficulties with the staging. When Port was first staged at the Royal Exchange, it was in an intimate theatre in the round setting that would have suited Stephens’ play better than the Lyttleton’s cavernous stage. In scenes such as the opening one which takes place in a car outside a block of flats, the largely empty stage seemed to dwarf the actors, and I had difficulty hearing some of the lines in the vastness of the Lyttleton.
- Simon Stephens: Stockport state of mind (The Guardian, January 2013)
- Port: Simon Stephens interview (BBC, 2002)